Photograph by David Liittschwager, National Geographic
Published February 18, 2011
From inside an inflatable Zodiac bobbing in ‘Opunohu Bay, Papa Mape extends a brown weathered finger to the mountains rising just past Mo‘orea’s thin shoreline. Mape, an 84-year-old Tahitian fisherman, says he knows when to find certain fish in the lagoon near his village, Papetoai, by observing seasonal changes in the lush vegetation on the jagged peaks.
“You have to understand that the land and the ocean are one,” Mape explains through a translator. “Whatever you do on the land, the ocean suffers. Whatever you do in the ocean, the land suffers.”
Usually, Mape, a native of Mo‘orea, saves his ancient knowledge for those that understand his language, Tahitian. But he does offer up a few plums to the westerners in the boat, explaining that he and his fellow fishermen know they can find swarms of spawning red squirrelfish in the lagoon when the bright red blooms of the springfire tree color Mo‘orea’s mountainsides.
Illustration by Stephen Rountree
A Bridge Between Worlds
What Mape knows about his island and the ocean that surrounds it has passed through generations. But now it may turn in a new direction, serving as a bridge to the latest western science, which also happens to be interpreting life on Mo‘orea. Bringing the two together is one of the missions of Hinano Teavai-Murphy, president of the Association Te Pu Atitia and associate director of the University of California Berkeley Gump Research Station. Formed in 2002, Atitia is a community-based nonprofit that aims to create clearer channels of communication between island elders like Mape and younger generations, and also with the scientists who visit and live on the island.
Or, as Teavai-Murphy puts it, the elders can now start to validate their observations of the natural world with science, and scientists can ground truth their data with the long-term observations of the community.
“We have the data, we’ve lived here all our lives,” Mape says. Too often in the past, “good” advice from the scientists about how to manage the natural resources of Mo‘orea has come without input from the community. And, adds Mape, it can sound like the natives are being told what to do.
Many in Mape’s generation feel this happened when new protected areas around Mo‘orea’s coastline limited fishing, says Tamatoa Bambridge, a Tahitian cultural anthropologist working for the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). “We are sometimes destroying a whole culture in the name of environmental management,” Bambridge adds.
One of the better examples of the cultural bridges taking shape on the island can be found in the Mo‘orea Biocode Project, which aims to catalogue the genetic signatures of all the non-microbial species on the island. The database will eventually identify species by their Tahitian and Latin names, and their genetic signature—a way of identifying species that transcends language barriers.
Species identification is the key to unlocking the depth and importance of biodiversity on the island, says Bambridge, who has just started his own two-year project to document indigenous knowledge. “There are a lot of myths about biodiversity—mostly related to getting rich quickly if you find the right medicinal compound. What is not a myth for me is the richness of the diversity and the wealth from languages and cultures,” he says. “Polynesia is a society of experts, we call it tahu‘a. The way people talk about biodiversity gives you an idea of how the world is organized from a certain point of view. This is much more interesting and rich than just an inventory of the name and use.”
Bambridge is also inspired by his belief that there are ways to apply traditional natural resources management strategies to solve 21st century environmental problems.
Breaking the Code
Biocode researchers have studied the squirrelfish that Mape and the Mo‘oreans eat as they’ve refined the science of taxonomy. Normally fish larvae are too undefined to classify as a particular species, but their genetic signatures remain the same from birth to death. By comparing adult DNA to samples taken from larvae, scientists are able to identify squirrelfish larvae and their migration patterns before the fish grow into their full size and color.
In Tahitian, the fish is called 'ala'ihi , its traditional taxonomic Latin name is Sargocentron, and its genetic signature looks like a string of letters. And the springfire bush, with big bright red blooms, is known as Metrocideros collina, or rata in Tahitian.
Neil Davies, director of the UC Berkeley Gump research station on Mo‘orea and the director of the Biocode Project, emphasizes the importance of communicating more with people like Mape. “If you don’t really understand the way people relate to biodiversity, then some of the management efforts that are put into place could fail,” he says. “If your goal is to maintain biodiversity, you need to maintain cultural biodiversity.”
Teavai-Murphy adds: “Mape could use [Biocode] to understand the expanse of the ecosystems here. He realizes that there are many more animals out there than he has ever paid attention to.”
A Legacy of Knowledge
Slowly, says Teavai-Murphy, the elders are starting to trust the scientists on Mo‘orea. But such cooperation hasn’t come easily, because they feel they’ve been burned in the past. She tells stories of representatives of big companies coming to the island and mining ancient knowledge, both about the natural world and how to extract resources. One company, according to Teavai-Murphy, has even trademarked the word “Tahiti.”
“So the elders are saying ‘no more, no more, we don’t want anyone to document, we don’t want to give it away, it’s better for us to die with our knowledge,’ because for them it is sacred,” she explains.
Also, traditionally, information has been passed down orally, according to strict protocols about how it was done and what could be told to people inside and outside the family.
"Information was passed down through the family, not “horizontally” to everyone in the community as westerners might," Teavai-Murphy says. So it isn’t just that they don’t trust westerners, but that these ways don’t fit with traditions."
With a background in education, Teavai-Murphy has been able to gradually extract and document the stories of the elders. “It was a big challenge,” she remembers. “It took us five years to fight, gently, to exchange ideas and to convince and to say if we don’t do anything we will lose all the knowledge that you have, that our ancestors kept for medicinal purposes, voyaging, and more.”
Beyond facilitating meetings among adults, Teavai-Murphy connects local schoolchildren to their elders, and to the scientists. Many of the ways that Polynesians transmitted their knowledge of traditional culture has been lost in the formal French-based education system, and as younger generations have tended to move off the island.
Mape, now open to sharing what he knows, says his ultimate goal is to reconnect younger generations to local indigenous knowledge. “When I look forward, I can picture the danger that future generations are going to face.”
Land and Sea
There may not be a direct link beyond seasonal changes between the squirrelfish and the rata blooms, but there does seem to be a connection between deforestation, increased agricultural production, and shoreline development and the growing amount of soil and sediment rushing to the lagoon.
Mape certainly has taken notice. “For 15 years they have destroyed the shoreline and they have dug coral to build the road,” he says, referring to the 41-mile (66-kilometer) road that now circles the island and creates a concrete barrier between land and sea. “Now we are feeling the consequence because the ocean is responding.”
“When they decided to dig up the coral for the road, there was nothing like there is today—a place that enabled us to sit down and say, ‘Wait a minute, this is what we know . . . what are you doing?’”
This report was made possible with funding from the Christensen Fund.
Special Report: Island Life
Scientists cataloging the genetic makeup of Mo'orea's species turns the island into a biodiversity lab.
Waves of exploration have washed over Mo'orea, altering cultures, landscapes, and biodiversity research in profound ways.
Our new infinite photograph features the diversity of marine and terrestrial life found on and near Mo'orea and in Biocode Project labs.
Archeologists and farmers tell the gritty story of French Polynesia.
See what crawls, flies, and sets roots down in a cubic foot of Mo'orea's mountain trees.
Elders start to work with scientists on preserving the biodiversity of Mo’orea.
National Geographic Magazine
Edward O. Wilson writes about the surprising number of organisms you'll find in a cube of soil or sea.
Photographer David Liittschwager documents his work off the coast of Mo'orea.
With their eye-catching colors, many creatures could inspire the most particular designer.
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